By Andrew Luberda
The Panthers’ football team faced their second consecutive ranked opponent last week when they battled the visiting Gilbert Christian Knights. The Knights, who are currently ranked fifth by The Arizona Republic and fourth by The East Valley Tribune, defeated a very game Panthers’ team, 76 – 32. The Panthers opened their season against top-ten ranked Mesa Prep, faced Gilbert Christian last week, and look forward to a match-up on Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, against Joseph City, which was the top-ranked team in some preseason rankings.
Despite the difficult schedule the young and raw Panthers have performed well against some top teams and, according to their coach, are looking forward to reap the rewards from the experiences.
“We played two top-ten teams in the state and in the first half of both games we were right with them,” Panthers’ head coach Ryan Palmer said after the game. “We have the potential to be a state championship caliber team over the next couple of years.”
After a Nicolaus Cruz punt pinned the Knights inside their own 1-yd line, the Panthers defense scored first when Edgar Galindo recovered a Knights’ fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. The 2-point conversion was successful giving the Panthers an early lead, 8 – 0.
The Panthers special teams had a difficult time containing the speed of the Knights all night long. The Knights returned the ensuing kickoff to Panthers’ territory and scored on a 25-yd run. The two-point conversion was good and the score was tied, 8 – 8.
The Knights took the lead when they returned a fumble 32 yards for a score. The 2-point conversion attempt failed making the score, 14 – 8.
Cruz was a workhorse all night and really kept the Panthers in the game with his speed, elusiveness, and play-making ability. He scored on a 27-yard run and converted the 2-point conversion on a pass completion to Austin Navarrette. The Panthers reclaimed the lead, 16 – 14.
“Yeah, pretty exhausted but the team hung around and tried to stay tough,” Cruz answered when asked after the game about his heavy workload.
The Knights immediately regained the lead with a kickoff return and began to pull away with a punt return for another score.
The Panthers closed the gap when Edgar Galindo returned an errant snap by the Knights 39 yards for his second defensive touchdown of the game. The Panthers trailed at the half, 40 – 24.
In the second half the Panthers began to tire and key players such as Michael Nunez were lost due to injury. The Knights took advantage of a tiring defense and injuries to put the game away.
The Panthers lone highlight of the second half came from Cruz as he continued making plays. With 3:08 remaining in the game he scampered 12 yards for a touchdown.
“He did a great job for us especially for being a freshman,” Coach Palmer said of Cruz. “He plays wise beyond his years and made plays when there were no plays to be made. He found a way to elude and get out of the pocket.”
Despite two losses to start the season, the Panthers’ players are not discouraged but they know their team needs to improve in certain areas.
“We started off executing good but we broke down,” Cruz said. “We’ll improve next week.”
Coach Palmer said part of the process with such a young team is the players’ need to take care of their bodies. He believes if they learn to take better care of themselves their stamina will improve and injuries can be reduced.
“We started to (get tired) in the end,” said junior Ricardo Ochoa about the performance of the defense. “Next week we’ll get better. Everyone is going to step up.”
There is little argument that the Panthers are young and inexperienced, but there can’t be any argument about their talent and reason for optimism looking forward.